Catanzaro's grab for 'Google money' falls short

Catanzaro's grab for 'Google money' falls short

But council president says she'll bring it back up

NORTH PROVIDENCE - A plan by some members of the North Providence Town Council to control the Police Department's $60 million "Google money" windfall fell flat Monday night.

In need of a 5-2 supermajority to overturn Mayor Charles Lombardi's June 11 veto of the budgetary maneuver, Council President Kristen Catanzaro could only muster a 3-3 stalemate, with Councilor Alice Brady absent.

Catanzaro was not discouraged, saying she'll try again in "three or four months," when all ongoing questions have been addressed. She'll champion an ordinance, she says, that would give the council final authority to approve or reject plans by local police to spend their Google winnings.

This is not about telling police they can't buy guns, ammunition or radios, said Catanzaro, but about protecting taxpayers against big purchases that might cost the town more money in the long run.

Lombardi, backed by Councilors Manny Giusti and Stephen Feola, had contended that Catanzaro's power play was an attempt to add another "unnecessary layer of oversight" to a process that is already strictly governed by the U.S. Department of Justice. Operations in the Police Department "are going great," says Lombardi, so why mess with a good thing?

But Councilor Bill Warren said Catanzaro's idea is simply to establish greater "transparency" with how the Google cash is spent, to make sure there is an extra level of "accountability" in place.

Police officials had also blasted Catanzaro's push to control the spending, with Deputy Chief Chris Pelagio telling The North Providence Breeze her move was "ludicrous," and Police Chief Paul Martellini calling it "dangerous" given the council's past lack of dialogue about the needs of the department.

"The Department of Justice guidelines are stringent, so now to add a level of bureaucracy, to me it's just them wanting to get their hands in the pot to control the issue," said Martellini. Police "are here on a daily basis," added the chief. "We know what the permissible uses are."

Dino Autiello was the third councilor to vote with Feola and Giusti Monday to sustain Lombardi's veto. He was absent when the council voted to approve the budget ordinance, with the Google amendment, on June 4.

Autiello said he understood why Catanzaro introduced the addendum to the ordinance, that "you don't want to find out that the (Police Department) bought 100 cars in the newspaper the next day," but said he was never comfortable with such a quick decision to add "another level of government" to the spending of the Google money.

The whole controversy came down to a "communication issue," said Autiello. He "wanted to hear more" on "why it was wrong or why it was right" for the council to take control of the spending or not. Instead, he said, there was just confusion all around.

The final section of the budget ordinance originally approved by the council states, "that with the passage of this ordinance, that any proposed appropriation or expenditure of monies by the town of North Providence of the so-called "Google money" or "Google settlement" money, currently being held by the federal government for the town or by the town, be approved by the Town Council prior to said proposed appropriation or expenditure being made."

Catanzaro said she believes the council should be able to have a say on Google expenditures that could end up costing the town money in the future, like adding police personnel or building a new public safety complex.

The council president on Monday brought with her the Department of Justice handbook on spending drug forfeiture funds to further explain why she felt the council has authority over the spending.

Under "bookkeeping procedures and internal controls," the handbook states that the law enforcement agency in question must "obtain approval for expenditures from the governing body, such as the town councilor or city manager's office, if appropriate."

But Giusti said that Catanzaro was taking the language "out of context," that it is ultimately an "administrative" decision by police officials on how they'll spend the money. Feola added that the council is a "legislative body," and that the spending of the Google money falls outside of its purview.

The council members who voted to override Lombardi's veto, Catanzaro, Warren and John Lynch, indicated that it likely would never have come to this if they had been included in the process of spending the Google cash to begin with. If police officials had just come to the council to say that they were planning to buy a new fleet of cars, and explained the reasons why, councilors wouldn't have had to hear about the plans first in The Breeze, said Catanzaro.

"It would have been almost automatic approval through communication," she said.

The North Providence Police Department won $60 million last year as part of a settlement with Google after the department assisted with an investigation into illegal online advertising of prescription drugs.

To this point, the Department of Justice has approved the spending of $20.6 million to fill the police department's pension fund and $1.26 million to buy 32 new police cars.